Melonie Edwards credits a male mentoring program for turning her life around.

“I was torn up pretty much,” said the 15-year-old, Morton East High School student. “I didn’t think highly of myself. I couldn’t hold a decent conversation with people. I never wore dresses, heels-none of that until I came to this program. It is not a self-esteem program, but that is what it helped me with.”

Edwards now takes all honors classes and wants to attend college, a far departure for someone who couldn’t see herself going past high school. She hopes to turn her musical talents into a career as a teacher.

Edwards owes her new resolve to her involvement in a mentoring program sponsored by 100 Black Men of Chicago. The national male-service organization operates a mentoring program at Austin’s Michele Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison, that happens to be predominately all female.

“It is by accident that the class is all women right now,” said John Kendall of 100 Black Men, who started the program in 1994 just for boys when Michele Clark was then only a middle school-it’s now both a junior high and magnet high school.

Edwards graduated from the middle school in 2009, but still makes it to the program’s Tuesday meetings.

Kendall explained the program’s focus has always been mentoring young boys, but a need emerged to mentor young girls as well. Gang involvement is often perceived as a male-oriented problem. But Kendall noted girls also deal with gangs, and their initiation often involves having sex with gang members. Teen girls also face peer-pressure to engage in sexual activity and teen pregnancy.

“We were not aware of some of the issues the young ladies were going through and decided the program was needed for both,” said Kendall, a patent and trademark attorney who lives in suburban Oak Park. “At some point, they needed mentoring probably more so than some of the young men.”

Co-ed mentoring programs are nothing new for the national 100 Black Men organization. Local chapters can set its own guidelines for programs. Kendall noted some chapters throughout the nation have decided to mentor young girls. But Michele Clark’s program owes its integration to a former Michele Clark middle school student who became the re-incarnation of Rosa Parks.

As the story goes, Jasmine Shaw integrated the program when she “sat down” during one of the group’s meetings-curious about why there wasn’t a program for women. That was six years ago and now Shaw is a Spelman College graduate. Since then, the group has seen an increase in female participation. This is the first class in the group’s nearly 20 year history working with school’s that’s all female.

While the program wants more male involvement, Kendall explained their program competes with other after school activities to attract them. Girls, however, seem more interested in the program’s opportunities, like trips to see black playwrights. They also get a chance to attend the 100’s national convention and local chapter galas.

The program was tweaked somewhat to accommodate the girls, explained John Anderson, a volunteer mentor and a financial consultant.

They’ve partnered with the Coalition for 100 Black Women to bring in speakers to discuss self-image and self-esteem. The program also stresses public speaking. Each session, students have to find a vocabulary word above their grade level, memorize its definition and use it in a sentence to present to their peers.

The girls, Kendall and Anderson noted, have grown over the years. Many have taken on leadership roles in other extra-curriculum activities.

“The biggest thing with them is confidence, and that’s not necessarily a gender thing,” Anderson said.

While the program helps with self-development, girls in the program said they benefit by having male role models. Anderson added many girls grow up without their fathers and this fills a void.

Senior Lakenya Hagan, 18, said the program provides examples of how men should treat women. Lavelle Green, 18, enjoys the program, but brushes off classmates’ criticism about her involvement in a boys’ program. She called it a challenge because it helped her polish her public speaking skills -something the biology major will need to open her own hospital.

“I want to be a business woman,” said Green, who will attend Clark Atlanta University. “If you want to own a business you have to be professional at all times.”